Heavy weather lesson

The best way to prepare for any storm is to prudently avoid it. But when the inevitable occurs and you happen to be in a production catamaran then you need to have to some strategies. Top delivery skipper Peter Neaves shares the benefits of his wealth of experiences.

Written by Peter Neaves

In the past two years I have sailed over 22,000 nautical miles on board catamarans, effectively 95 percent of all miles I have logged during this period.

A friend of mine I call the “weatherman”, looks after the next of kin details, tracking our position and monitoring the weather forecast  for any area I am travelling in.

He relays weather information to me via SMS messages over my satellite phone. Duane has probably read every article printed about catamaran designs and sailing them in heavy weather.

He is currently building a catamaran, and interestingly he has painted a black ‘V’ against an orange background (international code for distress) to the underside of his bridge deck. His decision highlights the fact that no matter how hard cats are to tip over, it can happen; and it’s much harder to get them back upright.

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Dock checklist

Well before putting to sea it’s advisable to work through a checklist such as this: 

  • make certain the jackstays have already been run, anything on deck is well-secured and the anchor is lashed down or stored below
  • check all the recommended safety equipment
  • check all bilge pumps including manual pumps
  • if you are carrying a sea anchor or a drogue know how to deploy it, especially where to attach it
  • make certain you have sufficient warps
  • check the equipment and deck fittings are suitable and strong enough below deck should also be in an orderly state. Once in bad weather off the New South Wales coast a couple of books and newspapers had found their way to the cabin sole. An earlier undetected hatch problem turned them into paper mache, blocking the strum box of a bilge pump and almost creating severe flooding. It’s been noted that no pump works as well as a frightened man with a bucket.

Comms in the green

One of my final preparations before departure is to make sure all of my communication equipment and devices are up to date and working properly.

Stronger and faster 4G networks and 4G plus and wi-fi boosters have allowed us to support our screen-dependent worlds on coastal passages but when heading offshore, communications at sea via satphone or short-wave radio is required.

I update my position via a small text file directly to the internet. My weatherman uses this position to send me updated weather reports and routing information. I use an Iridium system/phone for internet and text messages. A vital part of my equipment is a short-wave radio for weather reports. Much to my disappointment however, the ABC has ceased transmitting on short wave since the beginning of 2017.

I check the satellite system is downloading correctly and also download the latest weather forecast before departure. Be aware that this data could be six hours old or more when you access it.

Today’s phones, tablets and computers have a large selection of weather routing software and apps, the graphics and detail on these forecasts are improving all the time and can be remarkably accurate for even up to two weeks.

Most of these weather services get their data from other agencies and the forecasts they produce can sometimes be very different. So, when a low develops somewhere in your vicinity it’s important to know where to go to get up-to-date information on the position, speed and direction that the low is moving. This position needs to be marked on a chart either on paper or electronic or both.

Tactical decision time

Most gale conditions are forecast well in advance. You need to be able to position yourself to either avoid them or sail in the downwind quadrant of the low.

If you’re unfamiliar with the design of your catamaran then online forums, catamaran builders, and sailing websites should give you an idea of how different types and makes of cats will perform in storm conditions. Familiarise yourself with what has worked for other skippers in a similar situation.

Different designs perform differently in adverse weather.  High performance catamarans may have a chance of skirting the storm whilst maintaining a good speed and course.

For production catamarans the best tactic is to reduce sail and slow the boat down. You can’t outrun a storm, so put the brakes on before the catamaran starts feeling dangerous for the conditions.

If your desired course to your destination puts wind and waves on your beam, then it’s necessary to choose a course that will put the waves and wind either forward or aft of the beam.

Hands-on

I will generally run a watch system with short hours on the helm, should hand steering become necessary. Modern autopilots tend to cope quite well in most conditions, but don’t trust them.

Keep an eye on the amount of load being applied (helm balance), and try to adjust your sails accordingly. I encourage my crew to hand steer as often as they like, in all types of conditions, to get a good feeling for how the boat will react.

With multi-hulls, higher speeds equate to higher loads and this requires the crew to be extra alert and attentive while on watch. Prepare meals in advance, as hand steering can be tiring and good sustenance is important during rough weather.

Storm sense

In big wind and sea conditions my preferred option is running before the

seas and wind with minimal sail, as the general choices available are:

  • to carry on sailing with shortened sail
  • heaving to or lying a hull
  • running off before the wind with minimal sails
  • towing a drogue behind the vessel or using a parachute sea anchor
  • Running off the wind puts less stress on the boat but may keep you in the weather system longer. Also, hand steering downwind can be exhausting for  crew.

Sailing to windward can also be hard on crew though generally I don’t find it too uncomfortable if you slow the boat down. Heaving-to or lying ahull are handy for fatigued crew, or to make necessary repairs, but slowly making forward progress is my preferred option.

The use of drogues and parachute sea anchors are well documented.Perhaps due to good or maybe lucky weather routing so far, I have not needed to deploy either.

Timing question

On long passages it is only a matter of time before you will run into heavy weather. Catamarans are safe, fast and exhilarating

downwind, upwind though, they can be quite tedious.

If I was not constrained by time, as is often the case with my work, I wouldn’t even bother putting to sea for short trips if there is a forecast of strong wind forward of the beam.